Faycal Maroufi, a U.S. military translator from Florida, has spent the past three months confined to an American base in the deserts of Kuwait. The local authorities have promised to arrest Maroufi if he leaves the compound, and American officials have so far been powerless to help. Maroufi isn't wanted for a crime or accused of wrongdoing. He, like more than 50 other U.S. citizens, is instead being effectively imprisoned in Kuwait because of a nasty and complicated business dispute between an American contractor and its local partner.
The histories of the Iraq and Afghan wars are littered with cases of low-paid contractors from countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan being kept in the war zones against their will by companies that forced them to work seven days a week and sometimes confiscated their passports to ensure that they couldn't return home. The current standoff in Kuwait appears to be the first time that large numbers of American citizens have faced a similar predicament. The contractors are caught in the middle of a fight between two large companies, a battle they didn't choose and don't fully understand. For all intents and purposes they're under house arrest despite not doing anything to deserve it.
Maroufi and his colleagues are currently living in hangars on Camp Arifjan and Camp Buehring, the two main U.S. bases in Kuwait, and using lockers and curtains to carve out small slivers of personal space. Their makeshift barracks are infested with bedbugs, and the nearest bathrooms are in trailers several minutes away. They aren't allowed to access the bases' military hospitals or leave the country for personal emergencies. One employee lost his mother but was blocked from returning to the U.S. for the funeral; another lost his father but was similarly confined to the base by Kuwaiti authorities. Iowa resident Majdi Abdulghani was arrested at the Kuwait City airport as he was preparing to board a flight back to the U.S. to see his ailing mother. He was jailed for a week.
"We are prisoners here," Maroufi said by phone from Kuwait. "We're pawns in a fight between these two companies. I want to go home and be with my family, but instead I'm stuck here, and I don't know when they'll let me leave."
The linguists are now trying to get even. Late last month, Maroufi and 18 colleagues filed a lawsuit against their employer, Global Linguist Solutions, or GLS, a U.S.-based firm that has a piece of a $9.7 billion Pentagon contract to provide translation services to military personnel across the Middle East. GLS is a joint venture between defense contracting giants DynCorp and AECOM, so Maroufi and the other plaintiffs sued them as well. Joe Hennessey, their lawyer, says he plans to ask for damages "in the tens of millions of dollars, if not higher."
GLS and DynCorp declined to comment, citing the litigation, but GLS argues that the Kuwaiti subcontractor, Al Shora General Trading and Contracting Co., bears full responsibility for what has happened to their employees. Al Shora couldn't be reached for comment, either. However, the company's owner, Reham Aljelewi, told Stars and Stripes earlier this year that she no longer wanted to work with GLS and accused it of making false allegations about her firm to various Kuwaiti officials.
American military and civilian officials say they're doing what they can for the contractors, but have gone out of their way to emphasize that the entire crisis boils down to a fight between two private companies.
Ron Young, a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, which oversees the GLS contract, said the military was working with the State Department to find a way to get the contractors out of Kuwait. But he stressed that the "current situation regarding the American linguists in Kuwait is a legal matter under Kuwaiti law."